A walk down Christopher Street in Greenwich Village is a tour of gay rights' most historic New York sites — and what has become possible in the movement’s wake. Within a few blocks of the subway station are nearly a dozen bars, adorned with rainbow flags and paper lanterns, that attract a largely gay clientele. The neighborhood’s gay bars offer more flavors than the Village's Big Gay Ice Cream Shop.
Nearby, also in the Village, are two of Manhattan’s three lesbian bars. A decade ago, there were almost a dozen. Last year, just two remained: Henrietta Hudson, founded in 1991, and the Cubby Hole, which opened three years later. Both are neighborhood joints with raunchy signs on the walls and cheap draft beers at the bars.
"When I was in high school and college, there were at least eight or nine [lesbian bars] to go to," says Kim Stolz, 29, a New York City native. She is an author, former Wall Street trader, MTV News anchor and reality television personality who had a stint on "America’s Next Top Model."
It's a phenomenon echoed in major cities across the country, and it may have a lot to do with our changing social norms. As Jodi O’Brien, the chairwoman of Seattle University’s Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work, explains, "lesbian presence in mixed spaces is typically more tolerated than gay male presence, especially if there are displays of affection."
For gay men, she said, the demand for exclusive spaces is great, so such spaces have proliferated. For lesbians, the market is too small to support similar expansion.
Lesbian bars also have a somewhat more complicated calculus when it comes to clientele. Men tend to drink — and thereby spend — more than women. But the bars need to be careful about keeping a good balance. At the Cubby Hole, under a rainbow-colored sign at a West Fourth Street intersection, sometimes there are more gay males in the bar than lesbians. "It’s a little different here," says Rico Garcia, a gay man and bartender at Henrietta Hudson. "Our bouncers will turn away large groups of straight guys. Gay guys are welcome, but not too many of them come down here."
And, of course, the Internet has changed the social scene for everyone.
"Lesbian culture has tended to be organized around dense social networks of friends rather than the bar scene, so there have always been fewer lesbian bars than gay male bars in general," says Lauren J. Joseph, a Pennsylvania State University sociologist whose areas of study include gender and sexuality. "Before the Internet, I would argue that women patronized the Manhattan bars because that was where they could find other lesbians to date or to socialize with."
Now, Joseph says, "women do not need to go to the bar to meet other women."
With forums for communication now accessible from anywhere with WiFi, lesbian bar patrons can go wherever they want.
Christina Cambria, a physical education teacher, and Christine Pagano, a nurse, have been married for almost a year. These days, they go out only rarely. "We feel okay going to any bar," Cambria said. "We don’t really seek out gay places any more because we aren’t really in that place anymore."
When they were single, things were different.
“We went to these lesbian places when we were single and younger,” Pagano said. “I’m from Staten Island that had no lesbian bars, so I had to go to the city. We went mostly to Henrietta’s, the most famous one. I know of the Cubby Hole … and I know of Catty Shack in Brooklyn, which closed. I don’t even know of any other ones."
Since Stolz’s college days — she graduated from Wesleyan University in 2005 — the public acceptance of lesbianism has grown. Katy Perry’s single "I Kissed a Girl" hit No. 1 across the charts in 2008.
Today, according to psychologist Leonard Sax, lesbians and bisexual women are more common than gay and bisexual males: 15 percent of women, compared to 5 percent of men.
Still for some, the bars appeal.
"It’s nice to have somewhere to go where men don’t bother you," says Liana Lavin, who works for Al-Jazeera America, which has its studio around the corner from Henrietta Hudson. "I want to go out with my girlfriend and be out with my girlfriend, not get my ass grabbed and invited home for a threesome."